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TRIBUTE TO FRANTZ DOBROWSKY (article first published : 2006-01-21)

Johannesburg-based actor Peter Terry pays tribute to his friend and colleague, well-known South African actor Frantz Dobrowsky, who took his own life a few days ago.

I was sitting under the trees having lunch today, when Jossie Broderick phoned me to tell me that Frantz Dobrowsky had shot himself. It appears, from the little I've been told so far, that he shot himself two days ago; perhaps his death was undiscovered for two days. As yet, there is no known motive for his suicide, other than (perhaps) a desperate financial situation, although I've been told that he was involved in a production of some kind, so I have no idea quite how bleak his financial outlook was when he killed himself.

It sounds fanciful, but it's true: as I sat under the trees in the dappled sunlight, hearing the line "Frantz has shot himself", it all felt so much like being on stage at the end of Chekhov's Seagull; not least, I don't suppose, because of the sensation of unreality. Frantz's life was something rather like a Chekhovian drama, in fact. A bittersweet mixture of laughter and tears, comedy and pathos, anger and exquisite sensitivity.

I think of Frantz and so many Chekhov images come to me, not least - in fact most strongly - the time he played the role of Chekhov in a production we did in 1985, called Chekhov in Yalta, a biographical play written in a brilliant Chekhovian style; Chekhov's own life was - in this play at least - a kind of living, breathing Chekhovian tragi-comedy. Frantz played the great man himself, and he looked uncannily like Chekhov did, going by all the photographs.

Frantz understood Chekhov's theatre deeply. I can't recall how many Chekhov productions he was in, but I do remember him in Reza de Wet's remarkable Yelena, her fascinating sequel to Uncle Vanya, in 1998.

I think one of the reasons he was so good at Chekhov - and/or the Chekhovian style - was because Frantz's acting was always so deeply layered. I worked with him in countless productions over a span of nearly 40 years, and I often had the chance to marvel at how much thought and care went into the tiniest bit of stage business. He wasn't just meticulous. He wasn't quite obsessive - not all the time, anyway - in his approach to a performance. But what he achieved, time and time again, was a delicacy that might not always have been noticeable in the back row of the theatre, but which all contributed to an extraordinary honesty, truth and integrity in his work.

Sharing a dressing room with him was a revelation. This was no hack actor; the shoes and socks had to be right. The props had to be right. I can recall him making his own props at times, when he wasn't satisfied with a letter he had to use on stage. He'd do everything with a kind of self-respect which few of us troubled ourselves with. (I remember that, with the Chekhov in Yalta we did in 85, there was a companion piece, as it were; they did Uncle Vanya in rep. I forget which part Frantz played but he needed a map of Russia, I think, so he made one himself. He loved the fact that there was a town in Russia with a name as funny as Omsk - so his hand-crafted map was filled with places names he invented: Bomsk, Tomsk, etc! Not your average sense of humour...)

I first saw Frantz on stage in 1967. I was a matric pupil, and he was a first year Drama student at Rhodes. I didn't have the know-how to analyse what it was, but I was bowled over by the sheer presence of this young man in a small role in Shaw's St Joan. Intuitively, I knew he was in a different league from the other student actors around him. I was in a couple of productions with him at Rhodes, before he went on to PACT Drama in 1970. We were always good chums, and I responded to his burning energy; it was wonderful to meet up with him again in 1972, when I joined PACT myself. Often we'd sit in his flat getting plastered and talking incredibly seriously about the theatre and the meaning of life.

When he won his first Best Actor award, in 1973 - for that Howarth series, A Lily In Little India was one, and the other titles escape me - it seemed so right. He was, if I remember correctly the youngest ever winner of the award, and I think he was extraordinarily proud. Those of us who saw him knew he'd deserved it, though. He was never a Leading Man in the conventional sense of the word, but watching Frantz at work was always a bit like being in a master class.

I remember being with him in an Afrikaans production of Fugard's People Are Living There in 1984. He played Shorty the postman in a way that probably only Frantz could have played the role. In about 1995, he gave us something like the other side of that coin, can you believe it, in an extraordinary Macbeth which, too, was something like Frantz himself: troubled, poetic, fighting demons of his own making, perhaps. Always heading for destruction.

I daresay all of us witnessed Frantz's outbursts from time to time. They were alarming. Within that compact human being there were caverns of pathos that we all felt enormous compassion for, fear of, and helplessness to change or soothe. Years ago, he told me that he had a physical condition which caused these outbursts. I never asked him for more details. Whether it was true or not, I don't know. I think he found his own volatility terribly difficult to come to terms with.

I always used to phone him for his birthday, and he always appreciated it so much. The last time I saw him, about 15 months ago, he was very upbeat about his life. He was one of very, very few actors in South Africa who was basically working full-time in the theatre, and he seemed to be doing so well. But things can change pretty quickly, as we all know from our own lives.

When I think back over close on 40 years, Frantz keeps popping up all over the place in my memories. We shared countless productions together, and in so many ways.

Chekhov again: one of my favourite Chekhov quotes is "Any idiot can face a crisis. It's the day-to-day living that wears you down." Yes, I suppose it was the day-to-day living that finally wore Frantz down, and he resolved his crisis in a way that none of us would have wished. It was a high price for him to pay, but I am sure we all hope there is peace for him now. Peter Terry




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